Nick Eatman of DallasCowboys.com recently put together a list of the top ten position battles for this training camp. While as enjoyable as any other generic discussion of the Dallas Cowboys, I felt that the list itself fell victim to something I wrote about recently: the deception of the depth chart.
Eatman lists among his positions the third receiver, backup running back, second tight end and nickel corner, which are, on the surface, the 2nd or 3rd positions of each respective area on the depth chart. I won't rehash my entire stance on this, but suffice it to say that a linear depth chart does not accurately represent the organization of a football roster.
With this in mind, I'm going to take a look at the battles that are actually occurring in these four position groups (receivers, running backs, tight ends and corners), and pick my favorites to win them.
Sticking to Eatman's order, I'm going first to the receivers. Last year, Dez Bryant was the starting X receiver, while Miles Austin was the top receiver at both the Y and Z positions (for those who're rusty on terminology, X and Z are starting outside receivers, X being the 'number one' guy, and Y is the slot receiver). Dwayne Harris was the second option at Z, and came in when Miles played the slot. Kevin Ogletree was the apparent backup at the X, and Cole Beasley seemed to be the backup Y. This season, Dez and Miles will likely remain in their previous roles as the starting three. The main competition will be for the second X, Y and Z positions. In fairness, however, the primary backup to the X and Z will likely be the same player, leaving just two (important) spots up for grabs.
The incumbent backup at X and Z is Dwayne Harris - a player most of us would like to see remain in the gameplans for 2013. The challenger to the spot is third-rounder Terrance Williams. The winner of the battle will become a starter on three-wide plays when Austin kicks inside to the Y.
As for how the battle will play out, I look to 2012 as an example. Kevin Ogletree began the season as the clear leader at this position. As the season progressed, Dwayne Harris overtook Ogletree and claimed the backup job.
Williams is still a rookie, despite how impressive he's been. He'll be expected, if he sees the field, to be making sight-adjustments and recognizing audibles in what remains a very complex offense. I'm glad we have Harris right now to protect Williams from being forced into action before he's ready. I will be looking for Williams to be involved on a limited basis on very simple routes (receiver screens, for example) to acclimate him to real NFL games. The progression to a viable primary backup may not even be complete by the end of this season.
The verdict? I see Dwayne Harris logging more snaps on the outside than Williams this season.
The second point of contention, for the backup Y-receiver, is in my opinion one of the more compelling races. Cole Beasley will be battling basically the rest of the receiving corps, with the biggest threat coming from Danny Coale.
What makes this battle more interesting is that the loser might not make the roster (while the second backup to the X and Z positions will). This player will see the field any time the Cowboys go three wide when Miles Austin is unavailable (recent history suggests that that's quite a bit of playing time).
Danny Coale's strength is that he's always open, with the caveat that NFL regulations prohibit defensive backs from covering receivers on injured reserve. Beasley, on the other hand, has been fairly impressive so far with the Cowboys.
Despite Beasley's success this past year, I believe the Cowboys want Danny Coale to win. Every inch counts when you're one of the worst teams in the league at scoring in the red zone, so on a perfectly level field the edge would go to Coale.
My hope is that the team finds a way to carry six receivers. My fear, however, is that I'll see one of these players cut. The leading man right now is Beasley, who not only has been available but has also been making plays.
Decision: Cole Beasley.
Eatman discusses Joseph Randle versus Lance Dunbar in his article. I don't think that that's a competition at all. The two running back positions on the Cowboys roster are the feature back and the change-of-pace back. Joseph Randle is a feature back, while Lance Dunbar is a change-of-pace back.
Right now, the running back group will likely include the first feature back, the first change of pace back, and the second feature back. Carrying a fourth running back is unlikely, but in that event the fourth would likely be a second change-of-pace back.
This is all well and good for DeMarco Murray, Lance Dunbar, and Joseph Randle. The player who's fighting for his job is Phillip Tanner. In order to remain on this roster, Tanner (who by all accounts looks great this year), will have to either prove to be a better second feature back than Randle (possible), a better feature back than Murray (highly unlikely), or simply valuable enough to phase out the change-of-pace back position (who knows?).
Personally, I have never been a huge proponent of Tanner due to his lack of top-end speed. I'm far more confident in Lance Dunbar when he has the ball in space to make something special happen. Randle, from what little I've seen, seems to fit into the same category as Tanner, but Tanner's improvements this offseason might actually make him the better back.
Here's what I think will happen. In training camp, Tanner will show how far ahead he is of Randle. Lance Dunbar will maintain the form that has Jason Witten raving about him. The coaching staff will not be keen to risk losing their fifth-round pick in an attempt to stash him on the practice squad. This scenario should force the Cowboys to keep four running backs at least on their early-season roster. I also hope that Kendial Lawrence can be held safely on the practice squad.
My prediction is that Tanner will outperform Randle, but both will make the roster along with Murray and Dunbar.
James Hanna and Gavin Escobar aren't competing directly to be the guy who trots out on every two-tight end set along with Jason Witten. It's pretty clear at the moment that their usage when the team is in the '12' personnel grouping will be with Hanna in most situations and Escobar in the red zone. This is the logical way to utilize their skill sets.
The real question is this: who's the second first tight end? That is to say, if Witten were to be unavailable for some reason, who would be the tight end that takes the field in single-tight end sets (11 personnel, for example)? This question hopefully won't mean much now, but once Witten is considering retirement and these two young tight ends are at the ends of their contracts, the Cowboys will be looking to extend their backup Senator.
Right now, I give the edge to Hanna. He's a more complete player at this point and has deep speed that can actually alter the way safeties play coverage. Escobar, as reliable as he seems, will need time to learn the techniques required to work himself open without elite deep speed.
In the long run, however, I see Escobar as Jason Witten's potential heir. I don't expect him to live up to Witten's lofty career, but I do expect him to one day step in as the starting tight end, both a competent blocker and an able receiver.
My prediction at this point is that in the event of Jason Witten's absence the starting tight end will be James Hanna, and that the Cowboys long term plans see Escobar usurping Hanna in that respect as early as next season.
Eatman predicts a battle between BW Webb and Orlando Scandrick at the corner position (namely, the slot corner spot). I just don't see that happening this year.
Orlando Scandrick is one of the better slot corners in the league. I don't believe he'll be overthrown by a rookie. I don't think Claiborne as a rookie could have handled the slot better than Scandrick last year, and I certainly don't think that Webb will be a better rookie than Claiborne was.
I really think that this position, slot corner, will remain just the way it is right now. Scandrick is the starter, and BW Webb backs him up. Of course, barring excellent development from Sterling Moore, Scandrick is also the first backup on the outside (and unlike slot receiver, slot corner does not take priority), so Webb will see the field in the Nickle in the (un)likely event that someone ahead of him is unavailable for some time.
These are the actual position battles that I see going on behind the shallow surface of the depth chart. What do you think, BTB?
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